The Jewish presence in boxing goes back to at least the late 1700s and Daniel Mendoza, a Sephardic Jew from London’s East End. Proudly calling himself “Mendoza the Jew,” he began his professional career in 1790 by knocking out one Harry the Coalheaver in 40 rounds, a length typical of that pre-Marquis of Queensbury-rules era. Mendoza became known as the father of scientific boxing, and some say his prominence helped stem an outbreak of anti-Semitism in England. Jewish boxers since have been referred to as “sons of Mendoza.”
There were days in the early decades of the 20th century when Jewish fighters dominated the world of boxing. In 1930, six champions of the eight major weight classes were Jews, says boxing historian and ESPN boxing analyst Bert Sugar, who cuts a Damon Runyon-esque figure with an ever-present fedora on his head and a cigar in his hand. Among them was the incomparable Benny Leonard, known as “the ghetto wizard,” a lightweight whom the American boxing magazine The Ring ranked eighth on its 2002 list of the 80 best fighters of the past 80 years. Jewish champions included Max Baer, who defeated the German hero Max Schmeling in 1933 and knocked out Primo Carnera in 1934 to become heavyweight champion. According to Sugar, Baer was just one-eighth Jewish, but that was enough to enable him get away with wearing the Star of David on his trunks.
“Battling Levinsky,” born Barney Lebrowitz, was light-heavyweight champion from 1916 to 1920, preceding Maxie Rosenbloom, later a Hollywood actor known as “Slapsie Maxie.”
“A lot of the Jewish fighters changed their names, some to escape their mothers, others to take names that weren’t Jewish,” says Sugar. “There was one Jewish fighter named Mushy Callahan whose real name was Morris Scheer. He took an Irish name and did such a good job that one of his sons became a priest.”
But the Jewish presence in the fight world began to fade in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Barney Ross was the last great Jewish champion, earning titles in the lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight divisions before World War II, in which he served heroically as a Marine.
“Those on the bottom rung of the ladder have always turned to fighting as a way up,” says Sugar. “First it was the Irish, then the Jews, then the Italians, the African Americans and the Hispanics. The second generation of Jews got jobs as lawyers and accountants, they didn’t have to use their fists. You’re not getting recruits for boxing from Harvard Business School, you’re getting them from the streets.”
And so it wasn’t until the last few years, when immigrants from Eastern Europe began pouring into the United States and scrapping their way up from the bottom rung, that Jewish fighters began to re-emerge. One of them is Dmitry Salita, a Ukrainian-born Orthodox Jew who refuses to fight on Friday night or before dark on Saturday. “If anyone wants a whupping from me, they got to wait until after sundown,” he says on his website. Salita gained a title shot in December against WBA light-welterweight champion Amir Khan in England but was knocked out in the first round. So far, Yuri Foreman remains the most successful of Eastern European immigrant boxers.
Yuri Foreman, 29, sits outside the office at Gleason’s Gym. Standing 5 feet 11, he has a surprisingly gentle handshake for a man who makes his living with his fists. His piercing brown eyes seem to miss little. As he talks, other fighters spot him and come over to fist-bump their congratulations. One barrel-chested African-American heavyweight expresses the pride of them all, happy to see one of their own make it to the top. In a voice with the power to knock over the Brooklyn Bridge, he roars over and over again, “Champion! Champion!”
Foreman takes all this with a shy smile above a wisp of a beard. A long coat hangs over a chair, but he wears a funky cap, a sweater and long, dark pants, with the threads of tsitzes dangling from beneath the sweater. In a few weeks, a banner celebrating his championship achievement—“Gleason’s Gym, Home of WBA Junior Middleweight Champion Yuri Foreman”—will be unveiled in what he calls “my second home.”
Or maybe it’s his fourth, after the apartment in Brooklyn he shares with his wife; after Haifa, where he grew up; and after his birthplace in Gomel, Belarus, not far from Chernobyl, whose nuclear reactor meltdown led to the evacuation of all of Gomel’s children, including the 6-year-old Yuri.
“My parents sent me to live with relatives in Estonia,” he recalls. His voice carries only a slight residue of an accent. “But after two months, the authorities said it was safe to go back, all the radiation was gone.” He shrugs and smiles at the absurdity.
The following year, Soviet policy dictated that the time had come for him to pick a sport. His parents sent him to learn to swim, but the older boys in the pool began to bully him. Because he was Jewish? “No, because I was smaller. They’d tell me to go get their towels, and I refused, so they bullied me. I came home and told my parents, and my mom took me to boxing camp so I could learn to defend myself. At first it was intimidating, but I got to like the environment there: the heavy bag, the trainer, everything.”